The Changing Face of the Unaccompanied Alien Child: A Portrait of Foreign-Born Children in Federal Foster Care and How to Best Meet Their Needs

  • Description

In June 2011, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS) began an analysis of children placed in the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) and Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) foster care programs. To explore the changing face of the children coming into care, USCCB/MRS considered children referred for foster care services from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)/Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) between October 1, 2007, and June 1, 2011. Of the 279 children referred to USCCB/MRS, the sample size for this paper included 98 children from across the study years. The goal of this paper is to inform ORR and other stakeholders about the profile of unaccompanied children entering foster care and how to better serve them and their needs. Through a greater understanding of the changing face of the UAC/URM population, all stakeholders can better shape their organizational capacity development to meet the increasingly complex needs of these children. This paper provides an in-depth analysis of the profile of children coming into federal foster care and how that profile has changed over the years. Across all study years, male referrals dominated, accounting for 65 percent, while 35 percent of the referrals were females. However, in fiscal year 2010, the number of female referrals more than doubled compared to previous years. The average age of children arriving in the United States and being referred to foster care was 16.02 for UAC and 16.38 for URM. The majority of children coming into care migrated from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Children from these countries also reported a high incidence of violence in their home country as a reason for migration. Other reported reasons for migrating remained constant over the study years and included escaping violence in their homes, escaping abusive situations, reuniting with family, and seeking better educational and employment opportunities. However, children also have begun presenting with more complex needs and higher incidences of trauma, mental health issues, and substance use histories. Therefore, it was not surprising to find that about 85 percent of children in the study sample reported having some type of traumatic experience prior to entering ORR custody. Although the majority of trauma experiences occurred when children were in their home country, the number of children who experienced trauma, such as kidnapping or sexual or physical assault, during their journey to the United States increased throughout the study period. Consequently, it was not surprising to find that youth are coming into care with higher incidences of mental health and substance abuse problems. Although the specific mental health disorders remained consistent across the study years, the number of children in the sample with a diagnosed mental health disorder steadily increased, from 13 percent in fiscal year 2008 to 38 percent in fiscal year 2011. Interestingly, half the children identified with a mental health disorder at the time of referral came from Honduras; a majority of those children were male. The study also found a steady increase in reported substance use from 17 percent of the study sample in fiscal year 2008 to 33 percent in fiscal year 2011. Children reported using substances to alleviate mental health symptoms such as depression; however, none of the children received a formal diagnosis of substance abuse or dependence. Further, the study found that the average length of stay for youth in ORR-funded facilities decreased from almost eight months in fiscal year 2008 to less than six and a half months in the beginning months of fiscal year 2011. Children reported alarming stories about witnessing violence or being victims of crime while in their home country or during their journey to the United States. The common diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and adjustment disorder demonstrate that the children had difficulty processing their trauma. Further, while the incidences of children with criminal histories and gang associations coming into care varied over the study period, it appears that children were more likely to be victims of crime and gang violence than perpetrators. Recommendations Ensure foster care referral documentation includes all pertinent case information. Reviews of documents provided to USCCB/MRS during the foster care referral process revealed that the quality and quantity of information collected varied greatly across ORR-funded facilities and staff. Having a sound understanding of the child's background and trauma history, along with any current behavioral, mental health, or legal immigration case considerations, is vital to ensuring a successful foster care placement. Plan for placements for children close to age 18. The majority of children not placed into foster care were those approaching their eighteenth birthday. When children turn 18 without immigration relief or foster care placement, they are at risk of becoming homeless, exploited, and/or deported. Child welfare standards encourage the use of concurrent permanency planning that involves identifying and working toward a child's primary permanency goal (that is, legal relief) while simultaneously identifying and working on a secondary goal (that is, alternatives to detention if legal relief is not obtained). Increase availability of legal services across UAC foster care network. Consistently over the four years of the study, a number of UAC were not placed in foster care because they were so close to 18 at the time of referral. The availability of legal services for all UAC would ensure they have early representation to pursue immigration relief well before they reach the age of 18, which is especially important for those with complicated cases. Develop continuum of care, including therapeutic and group home options to increase placement match. Developing a continuum of care -- particularly creating more therapeutic and group home options -- is critical in meeting the varying needs of this population and ensuring placement availability for children with high needs. A number of children were not placed due to their behavioral and/or mental health issues. Therefore, it is crucial that ORR and the states support and provide resources for higher levels of care within the URM network. Conduct further research on UAC population. Although trauma, mental health, and substance abuse issues are commonly addressed with children in foster care in the United States, few scholarly articles address points raised in this paper. Similarities exist among children in domestic and federally funded foster care; however, risks associated with the migration journey to the United States add multiple layers for consideration when working with UAC. In particular, further study is recommended on the outcomes of these children once they have transitioned out of ORR custody.